Shooting the Messenger

Till Death Do Us Part


She was crying her eyes out and could barely speak as she collapsed in a chair in my office. Her husband had just called and accused her of cheating on him.

When the mandate of the Energy Supplies Allocation Board came to an end, I accepted a job with the Canada Map Office as head of its Cost Recovery Unit. The Canada Map Office is responsible for the sale and distribution of government produced maps, aerial photographs and satellite imagery.

Even if I did not have any experience in supervising staff, I took the job offered by John MacArthur, a director with the Surveys and Mapping Branch of the Department of Energy Mines and Resources with overall responsibility for the operations of the Canada Map Office. He made me an offer I could not refuse.

Before I met with MacArthur I read the job description given to me by his secretary. When I met with the man, I handed it back explaining that I did not wish to waste his time; I did not meet the educational requirement, a three year college diploma in accounting or equivalent.

MacArthur took the job description, put it aside and invited me to sit down. He had read my resumé.

He asked if I was still working towards an accounting degree with the Certified Management Accountants of Ontario. I answered yes.

“How many courses before you have the equivalent of a three years College Diploma?” he asked.

“Four courses, or one semester full-time.”

What interested the Surveys and Mapping Branch director was not my education but my experience in credit management and accounts receivable. He had an urgent need for someone with that type of experience.

In the latest Auditor General report, the Canada Map Office had been severely criticized for inadequate financial controls and shoddy accounting practices, especially in the handling of cash and past due accounts. MacArthur expected a return visit by the Auditor General in about a year and needed the problems at the Canada Map Office fixed before then. Could I do that?

I wasn’t sure.

Fix the problem, he told me, and the department would pay for me to attend college full-time to complete the educational requirements. Upon successful completion of the required course material he would appoint me to the full position on a permanent basis — a substantial promotion.

I think what finally convinced me to take the job was when MacArthur made it clear that, short of committing an indictable offence, I was free to do whatever it took to fix the problem.

That was a good thing, for the problem was much bigger than John had let on. The deficiencies identified by the Auditor General were just a symptom of an organization unable to cope.

I knew that I could make all the changes I wanted, but if my employees were not committed to doing a good job or were prevented from doing so, I was wasting my time. The vulnerable young distraught Indian-Canadian (Hindu) woman in my office wanted to do a good job.

The Cost Recovery Unit was a mini-Canada with English-Canadians, French-Canadians, Indo-Canadians, Pakistani-Canadians and Caribbean-Canadians; nineteen, mostly young women, and two young men when I took over.

Rakesh (not his real name) was one of these two young men. He was a bright ambitious Pakistani-Canadian who was obviously destined for greater things and was frustrated in his job.  He took out his frustrations in a number of ways. One of these was telling dirty jokes which the girls found offensive. His supervisor was not willing to officially reprimand him for fear of being accused of racism. A fear he played on.

The beautiful young Indian woman crying in my office was the favourite target of his questionable humour and witticisms.

Every now and then the girls had a girls-only lunch at a local restaurant. These lunches sometimes lasted a little longer than an hour. It was after one of these longer-than-usual lunches that she burst into my office sobbing uncontrollably. While the girls were out Rakesh had called her husband asking him if he knew where his wife was.

I could not reprimand him without his supervisor’s cooperation but I could move him. His job involved liaison between the Order Processing Unit and Shipping and Packaging located in the adjacent warehouse complex. He could do his job in either location. The office environment was similar if smaller, and mostly men worked there.

I called the warehouse supervisor and made arrangements to have his workstation moved that same day.

Rakesh did not enjoy working where men made up most of the work force. Can’t blame him. He quit a few weeks later, but not before giving me a book about how to be a good manager.

I liked Rakesh, even if I did not appreciate what he had to say about women in positions of authority or how I should do my job.

I did not move him because I wanted him to quit. I honestly believed that, because of the sometimes brutally honest discussions we had, he would come to realize that it was his attitude towards others, women in particular, that was holding him back from living up to his potential.

I would have plenty of time to reflect on this decision when I was moved to my small out-of-the-way beige corner of the world.

It was not the same thing; not the same thing at all.